Questioning Perception with Illusions

Can you spot the difference between the two pictures in the video above? Most of the packed audience at the “The Neuroscience of Illusion” event at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan couldn’t. What if we told you to look for something the men couldn’t leave without? Even with that clue, many attendees were still stumped. One women continued to struggle even when told to look for the man without a hat. If you’re like her and still confused, the engine of the plane is only present in one picture!

What makes it so hard to see what’s right in front of us? The audience’s response to the video illustrates that our field of vision, called the “attention spotlight,” is very narrow, said Apollo Robbins, speaker at the event. Called “The Gentleman Thief,” Robbins is a master pickpocket and illusionist who is said to have picked the pockets of more than 250,000 men and women. When we are focused on something intently, we may miss other important details. Pickpockets manipulate this shortcoming to divert attention and steal, he said.

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Advice for Scientists on Engaging the Public: From the Archives

Researchers Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik and journalist Devin Powell recently ran an informal survey of scientists who had made an effort to popularize their research. You can guess the tenor of their results by the headline they ran under in Scientific American: “Scientists Should Speak Out More.” That story is behind a paywall, but an anecdotal list that goes with it, “How Scientists Can Engage the Public without Risking Their Careers,” is free to read.

We interviewed Martinez-Conde in 2014 on her outreach, including her talks featuring magicians and illusions and starting the annual “Best Illusion of the Year” contest. On the question of why do outreach now, she said:

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Susana Martinez-Conde receives SfN 2014 Science Educator Award

SfN President Carol Mason presented Susana Martinez-Conde with the award on Saturday.

SfN President Carol Mason presented Susana Martinez-Conde with the award on Saturday.

The Society for Neuroscience (SfN) awarded its Science Educator Award to Susana Martinez-Conde, PhD, of the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center. SfN President Carol Mason presented her the award on Saturday during the group’s annual meeting, in Washington, DC. This is the first year the Dana Foundation has sponsored this award.

I met Dr. Martinez-Conde last month, when she was a panelist at an eye-opening event on the science behind illusions. Visual experience and other illusions are the subject of her research and a popular-science book, Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals about Our Everyday Deceptions, written with her co-investigator and husband Stephen L. Macknik. They also write the popular Illusions column for Scientific American. Their close collaboration with top professional illusionists like James (The Amazing) Randi, Mac King, and Teller started at a conference they organized in 2007, but we spoke about an earlier conference, where her ideas for outreach started to grow.

Q: Was it a conscious decision of yours to do a lot of education and outreach, as well as research?

Susana Martinez-Conde: I would say that it kind of started as an accident. But it has been so rewarding at all levels, personally and professionally.

In 2004, I was organizing the annual European Conference on Visual Perception, which was to be held in my home city of A Coruña, in Spain. Growing up there, I think, had to do with why I’m interested in science education today. Even now, it’s a relatively small city, less than 300,000 people, but it has a very large concentration of science museums. And it has one of the first interactive museums, the Casa de las Ciencias, the Home of Sciences. The director, RamónNúñez Centella at the time, was a major influence in science education and outreach in Spain. For me, it was a five minute walk from where I lived.

So as I was organizing this conference in my home town, I thought it would be nice to extend it, and include some public outreach. So I contacted Mr. Núñez and we established a collaboration with, at the time, the three science museums of the city. We held events that were open for the public at some of these museums.

We also had the idea to hold a contest for “The Best Illusion of the Year.” It was supposed to have been a one‑time event, but the public reception and the academic community reception were just so huge that we decided to make this an annual event. Continue reading

The Science of Illusion

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Most talks on the brain science of illusion feature slides or recordings, but the presentation last night at AAAS in Washington, DC, offered illustrations in four dimensions—a live performance by mesmerist Alain Nu. “The Man Who Knows” treated us to a series of experiences hard to explain but easy to enjoy. I’m going to describe a bit of what happened but you may want to just jump to the event’s video below to see for yourself, for reasons I’ll get to in a minute.

For example, Nu showed us a can of soda, popping the top, pouring soda into two ice-filled glasses, crumpling the can a bit as he invited two volunteers to quaff it down. After they had, Nu’s hands danced around the can, and its bends slowly straightened—and then it was full of soda. He popped the top, and poured more soda out, to the evident enjoyment of the two volunteers, who got a second helping. How did he do it? After his set, Nu joined three scientists who told us we’d only fooled ourselves.

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